When I visited Hopewell Valley Vineyards shortly after it opened in Pennington in 2002, it became clear that proprietor Sergio Neri is a man of several talents. Winemaking is the most expected of these, since three generations of the Neri family produced wines in Tuscany. (The family still has vineyards and a winery in the Chianti area.) What I didn’t expect was that this native Italian is also a master builder and coppersmith, who designed the winery’s attractive tasting room and personally handcrafted its copper tasting bar.
Fast forward to late 2009 when I learned that the winery, which has undergone two major expansions in the intervening years, also serves up pizza from its own wood-fired brick oven every Friday night as part of its happy hour from 5 to 9 p.m. With the Italian bona fides of Neri and his wife, Violetta, it occurred to me that the pizzas might be worth checking out. Plus, live jazz is part of the Friday mix, as are some of Hopewell Valley’s 14 wines, by the glass or bottle.
Long story short, the pizzas are terrific: authentic, made with first-rate ingredients, cooked just right, and a bargain. Five varieties are on offer, ranging from a classic margherita to one generously topped with prosciutto di Parma. The unique three-cheese pizza features gorgonzola and fontina in its mix. I must admit that I was pleased but not all that surprised to find Neri producing quality pizza. However, I was surprised — although in retrospect shouldn’t have been — to learn that Sergio built the oven himself, from scratch, after extensive research on traditional, hemispheric insulated brick pizza ovens. Research that involved trips to Italy. “It makes a big difference in the pizza,” Neri swears.
Violetta Neri swears that what makes the difference in everything her husband does is his intensity. “It was passion, more than business reasons, that drove him to do it,” she says. The fixings for the pizza that aren’t imported from Italy are purchased the day they are used from a farm market in nearby Pennsylvania. In the growing season, Violetta Neri makes tomato and pesto sauces using basil and tomatoes grown on the Hopewell Valley property, jars of which are sold at the winery alongside olives and olive oil from Italy.
The vineyard and winery sit on a 75-acre farm, 45 acres of which are devoted to viticulture, just off Route 31. Vines include classic vinifera, specific Italian, and New World varieties. Neri is in the process of seeking Farmland Preservation status for his “green” facility. “We are solar powered,” he says with pride about the 30 kilowatt system that not only supplies power to his house, vineyard, and winery buildings, but also allows him to sell excess back to the power grid.
During my happy-hour experience, the biggest surprise came not in the form of pizza, but rather involved the house band that performed jazz standards. (A revolving roster of area bands is featured. “Four with Marc Feingold” will play on Friday, January 22.) That night, who do you suppose was seated at the room’s grand piano? Sergio Neri. The man’s talents are apparently numberless. Plus, he and the band were darn good (not that I’m a music critic). Later Neri told me that more often the house band is a trio, but that night it expanded to a quintet, with added guitar and an accomplished female vocalist. He told me that when he is performing, a couple that he calls his in-house caterer makes the pizza, but that when he isn’t playing, he mans the pizza oven himself. Naturally.
The popularity of Friday happy hour was part of the motivation to expand, Neri says. He moved the winemaking and storage facilities to the new buildings and remodeled what had been the production room behind the tasting room to what is now an event space for up to 100 people, complete with stage. The room also has a pull-down screen, which makes it suitable for corporate presentations, and it serves as the site of wine classes. The schedule for the next series of three will go online in February. Attendees can sign up for the entire series or for individual classes. They are taught by Sergio Neri. Of course.
Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington. 609-737-4465. www.hopewellvalleyvineyards.com.